Thursday, December 3, 2015

Beasts of the Best of 2015: Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums

By: Ben Johnson

Every year I do this thing where I take a look at major music publications’ year-end best albums list and slog through each individual entry for as long as it takes to say literally one thing I can think of to say, and every year it almost breaks me. None of these lists needs to exist, nor for that matter do any of the items within these lists as distinct branded entities separate from any other given “album” or amount of music. By extension, my recounting of these lists is an inherently pointless act, and worse, one which I can not be said to enjoy in the strictest sense of the word “enjoy.”

Life is short and precious and as full of edifying wonderment as it is full of soul-destroying distractions, and Rolling Stone Magazine’s List Of Top 50 Albums of 2015 is a disastrous sinkhole in our collective timeline. It should be left alone, steered well clear of, and not dwelled upon for even one instant. And yet.

And yet, here we are with a thing that other humans, if the poor deluded simpletons currently populating what’s left of the publishing industry can even be called that, have somehow bothered to accomplish. This list, in its way, is therefore as heroic as it is stupid. It is an echo of the pointlessness and futility of a single human life, the brave but ultimately pyrrhic struggle of existence itself. And so there is no more noble calling than to make fun of these dumb fucking things, to voice the cosmic Nelson Muntz, ha-haing into infinity, inwardly and outwardly.

They actually didn't do as hilariously bad a job of it this year as they have in years past, but that's more an indication of how low the bar is than how impressively they cleared it. 

Seriously, though, get a load of this shit:

Guess who lives here

50. Bomba Estereo – Amanecer

The YouTube comments for these songs are mostly in Spanish, so I guess it’s legit. It sounds like some kind of 90’s-ass Massive Attack/Luakabop hybrid to me, but I’m not here to tell some Columbian people how their music should sound.

49. Bob Dylan - Shadows in the Night

A little while ago I was listening to “Tombstone Blues” and it hit me like a ton of bricks and I thought, “Is this it? Is my Dylan Is A God Phase finally happening?” And I decided that, yes, surely my Dylan Is A God Phase is now underway. That was over ten days ago. I have voluntarily listened to exactly zero Bob Dylan since then. In retrospect, maybe that was it, and my full Dylan Is A God Phase lasted as long as it took to listen to “Tombstone Blues” that one time. Anyway, I can confirm that this album is one thousand year old Bob Dylan singing some one thousand year old Bob Dylan songs that I guess one thousand year old Bob Dylan wrote.

48. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion

You want me to get really excited about Carly Rae Jepsen? Trick me into listening to some 2015 Bob Dylan material first. It’s like somebody just emptied some Pixy Stix into an iron lung. I feel like Mr. Six dancing his ass off to Venga Boys before his arthritis flares up and he has to be confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his short life.

47. James Taylor - Before This World

One time I got the chance to see James Taylor play in an intimate ballroom setting, mere feet from where I was sitting, and it was so boring I had an out of body experience. One of these songs is about, I shit you not, owning a cabin in Montana. I didn’t really listen to it, but I’m pretty sure he just sang “out in Montana, in the cabin that I own there, my self-absorbed emotions about my numerous divorces are as real as the annuities and high-dividend payouts my investment portfolio is currently piling into my checking account.” I mean, I’m paraphrasing.

46. Rhiannon Giddens - Tomorrow Is My Turn

Sometimes, because apparently I am an old man with trust issues, I’ll listen to my fully randomized entire collection of mp3’s which I still cling to. I did this last night while fixing dinner, and a strident female voice made me say “what on the face of the planet is this garbage?” and drop what I was doing to walk wet-handed into the living room and skip the current song. Turns out it was Joni Mitchell. So like, I’m sure Rhiannon Giddens is great, but what they hell do you want me to say about it? I’m in the kitchen garbaging Joni The Fuck Mitchell, so I can either tell the truth about how this music makes me feel or lie and be supportive. Regardless, and here’s the glorious and important fact of the matter: nobody asked me.

45. Madonna - Rebel Heart

The only record store in the Chicago neighborhood I used to live in was owned by this Madonna-obsessed middle aged dude who had absolutely no idea how to run a record store. At least that’s how I saw it. Maybe he’s a marketing genius who somehow stumbled upon the one segment of the population willing to pay actual money for Barbara Streisand LP’s and Eurythmics remix 12”es. Anyhow, business acumen aside, he’s a nice guy who I enjoyed chatting up, and I remember feeling really depressed about how excited he was for the new Madonna album and how incapable I was of even feigning enough interest in it to hold down my minority stake in a brief exchange of small talk.

44. Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife

I wish these two dudes had a song about owning a cabin in Montana. That would be dope as fuck.

43. Selena Gomez – Revival

I can’t tell if this actually sucks or if it’s just reminding me of my own mortality super hard. There will never be any new people born older than Selena Gomez currently is, even though Selena Gomez is technically still a zygote.

42. Bjork – Vulnicura

I wonder if Bjork’s inner voice sounds like Bjork. Like when she’s trying to remember where she parked, is there a little Bjork in there cooing “I think it’s ohn the thirrrrrhd floorrrrrr, cuz I remehmbehr it was yellow-ooooh-ooooooh-oooh.”

41. Kamasi Washington - The Epic

I’m not going to cape too hard for experimental/avant garde music, but to the extent that the pretentious stuff is really necessary, its greatest function is making people sound like the complete idiots they are when they try to sell us on Adele Lyrics As Important Literature Of The Moment or whatever brand of academicized middlebrow horseshit they’re currently peddling. You get to be like “oh yeah, but what about that guy who arranged Kendrick Lamar’s album also releasing 9 hours of original space jazz?” And then they go “hey, come on, this is about me and not you, I mean Adele, this is about Adele.” And you go “wait a minute, people are cynical dipshits” and the entire sordid physics of the world’s economic mechanisms open in your brain like a blooming nightmare flower, and you get to just keep walking down the street feeling like some kind of an extraterrestrial missionary or something.

There's just no possible way that ALL lives matter, dude

40. Songhoy Blues - Music in Exile

The most comforting thought I’ve had all day is that there’s a good chance these guys have never even heard of Donald Trump.

39. Muse – Drones

When I was first getting into rock music as a preteen in the early 90’s, there was this shift between liking a vast majority of the new music I heard and that no longer being the case. It made me feel sad and confused and lonely as only a preteen can while running into blind alleys of identity formation and looking down at your clothes and going “ew no, I feel like a clown in these,” and every time I hear Muse it’s like rediscovering that I still have access to those feelings. I do NOT appreciate it. I’m a grown man in my late 30’s. I don’t have time for that shit.

38. Ashley Monroe - The Blade

Here’s the first of the contemporary country albums I’ll be subjected to. I always have this impulse to be diplomatic about not liking this stuff, because I know country music is an aspect of American culture that is inseparable from our intentionally divisive class structure, and I try my best to be a human ally and stay aware of my many intersectional privileges as both a white hetero cis male AND as a person whose background has afforded me an education and cultural and aesthetic values which may justifiably be considered and scorned as “elite” by a majority of Americans. But if there’s one thing 2015 is teaching us about the large, amorphous, and heterogeneous segment of America that tends most to listen to and enjoy country music, it’s that there’s not really a lot of public emphasis among that group on meeting people halfway, listening to other points of view, and emerging with an enlightened understanding of your fellow human’s struggles.

So: this sucks. If you like this, or anything that sounds like it, you’re a pigfucking ignoramus who doesn’t deserve to be alive. Your mind is garbage, and it’s a nesting ground for garbage, and I don’t have time for you or your feelings.

If that makes me an elitist asshole, I guess I’ll just have to patiently wait for you to explain my wrongness to me, kind of like how you guys are doing a great job incorporating the three whole words of information contained within the phrase “black lives matter” into your worldview without getting all bent out of shape. Oh wait, opposite. Fuck you. I hope President Trump turns your whole community of dirteating mutants into a godforsaken nuclear wasteland run by a warlord water baron. You’ll deserve it.

Actually, “Winning Streak” is kind of peppy. I mean, I got no actual beef with Ashley Monroe or her music. There’s plenty of other shit I also don’t like.

37. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color

This woman is great. I think we can all agree on that. I’m not talking about the music, per se, although that’s pretty damn good too. Just: this is an excellent example of a human being. I mean, come on. How angry do we have to constantly be at each other when one of us is this? We’re gonna stomp on, for example, this person at a Donald Trump rally if they write the wrong thing on a sign? Really? That’s necessary? What the fuck species am I even a member of right now?

36. Hop Along - Painted Shut

Well look at that, Rolling Stone’s Best of 2015 list has got me feeling some feelings. I wish this was like a Dire Straits album I could just make fun of offhandedly. Instead it’s this collection of brilliant Juliana Hatfieldesque female-fronted 90’s major label subsidiary indie rock revivalist songs that openly and vulnerably explore how unfair life can be, and I’m in no emotional state to handle it at the moment, or maybe ever.

35. Vince Staples - Summertime '06

Hey Ashley Monroe fans, this one’s for you.

34. Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor

Big fan of the opening couple of sentences of the Marilyn Manson Wikipedia entry: “Marilyn Manson is an American rock band from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Formed in 1989 by frontman Marilyn Manson and Daisy Berkowitz, the group was originally named Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids with their theatrical performances gathering a local cult following in the early 1990s.” The following details pop out at me: Fort Lauderdale is a funny and perfect place for Marilyn Manson to be from, “The Spooky Kids” is great, and the idea that this musical act has been around long enough to rent a car while only ever having made the music they’ve made. All of those details are great. FYI, this dude is 46 years old.

33. Beach House - Depression Cherry

I just moved to Baltimore. People here don’t give a fuck. They wear sweat pants in public, and smoke a ton of weed, and everybody still gets laid. There’s not this sense of crowdedness or competition. Everybody’s just here doing whatever, and nobody’s trying to make anybody feel like a loser or a failure for waiting tables well into your 40’s. It can feel like there’s no stakes, which is both a liberatingly accurate appraisal of the actual stakes for most of the shit we spend our time worrying about and an invitation to lifelong, roach-infested, poverty stricken, gun violence accepting complacency. The most immediate upshot in terms of music is I now, suddenly, have zero worries about whether or not I am liking the “wrong” anything. So far, being in Baltimore makes me feel like a regular, natural man in that regard.

Beach House is a good band. They make pretty music that I like listening to, and I am allowed to like it, and I don’t have to care about anything more complicated than that. Maybe nobody’s actually trying to pull a fast one on anybody, and you can just be alive. This is kind of a new thing for me. That’s not how it feels like in Chicago, where I just got done with 14 years of tense striving and more or less gainful employment. We’ll see. The next Beach House year-end list album commentary could easily be “get me out of here, I can’t live like this.”

32. Jazmine Sullivan - Reality Show

Listening to this album makes me feel a little more in tune to what it’s like to be a black woman, which is as revelatory for me to experience as it is a dopey thing for me to say. Of course I’m fucking nowhere near understanding even one minute of what it’s like to be a black woman. I know that. I guess what I’m saying is this is so good it makes me want to paint my toenails while watching an Angela Bassett movie, and that would be a very unusual activity for me.

31. Leon Bridges - Coming Home

I’m glad there are 26 year old gospel kids from Fort Worth on a soul revivalist kick. I’ve had some misgivings about soul revival stuff, and I think it’s because there are such huge holes left by the untimely deaths of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, and the untimely gritsing of Al Green. The roadmap just has this gigantic Area 51 on it of what those dudes would have gotten up to next, and reminding us of their greatness without either approaching it or advancing it is maybe a little more bitter than sweet to me. But I totally understand how tall of an order that is.

Maybe the real missing element is there’s just no longer any such thing as studio and/or backing bands as good as Booker T. & the M.G.’s or the Funk Brothers or the J.B.’s or the Wrecking Crew or the Bar-Kays or the Meters or the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band or the T.S.U. Toronadoes or the Skatalites, or whatever astronauts of yore explored the deep inner space of how far in the pocket a group of musicians can get together. Those great gunslinging mercenaries of sound may be a thing of the past, a casualty of technology and modern economics. It’s individual producers now, and all you have to do instead of paying eight people for their dedication is get one perfectly mic’d snare hit into a sampler.

The best current bands are on late night talk shows earning regular paychecks from doing intros and outros, or following rich old fuckers like Keith Richards around, or doing commercial work, and if any of them were creative geniuses they’d be working in the studio on their own and raking in the dough on publishing like, I don’t know, Jon Brion? Whatever. I walked myself out pretty far on this one.

30. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Style

Dude, I wish I had a nice pithy fast joke here. What’s up with the food for thought on these, Rolling Stone? I thought you were supposed to be a walking talking clown corpse. More Marilyn Manson albums, please. Less actually good things like this. I’m not trying to write a novel here.

29. Joanna Newsom – Divers

I’m getting pretty tired of feeling like some kind of illiterate subhuman for not being able to enjoy her utterly impenetrable songwriting or get past her squeaky voice or impossibly baroque arrangements. I already dropped out of grad school once this year, and it was the right decision for me. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. You hear me, Joanna? Have fun keeping the gate. I’m outta here.

28. Miguel – Wildheart

This guy had an album in 2012 that ended up on all of these lists, and now here’s me being like “ugh, THIS guy again.” It definitely says more about me than it does about the thing itself that I can feel that way about giving something eleven minutes of my attention once every three years, but it doesn’t say NOTHING about that thing either.

27. Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood

Oh, are you Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church? You liked Jeff Tweedy even though you grew up in Appalachian North Carolina? Man, how did you cope with that? Please write a song about it. If you can be a white guy from the south singing a country song about feeling misunderstood in 2015, that would sure be great. We could sure all benefit from hearing that. It would help us all to understand the very serious and quite important plight of our fellow Americans who find themselves stricken with feeling kind of weird sometimes in between not ever being murdered by policemen. Why don’t you make fun of a list of 50 albums while you’re at it, dude? That would be even more creative.

26. Future - DS2

My life is not anywhere near difficult enough for me to feel a constant need to pretend like I’m some kind of invulnerable bulletproof baller, possessing of otherworldly constitution and appetite for the consumption of vices and impervious to human emotions, floating consequence-free through a violent world I’m the unapologetic master of. I’m grateful for that. But I can’t shake the feeling that this shit is some kind of tragic mandatory version of cosplay, not a real sustainable human way to live and be. Future? This is fucking blues music. This shit is hundreds of years old.

25. Darlene Love - Introducing Darlene Love

Darlene Love sang “He’s A Rebel,” so I’m sure as shit not trying to get between her and whatever paychecks she’s pulling in these days. I hope she gives away a whole bunch of CDs at the next PBS pledge drive and enjoys a lucrative tour of America’s most prestigious “old people sitting down in public” style music venues.

24. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf

Fact: each track on this album is 45 minutes long. It’s a sixteen album long album. Its runtime can only be measured in geologic epochs. It’s that epic. That’s how visionary Chance the Rapper is. I totally just phoned this one in, and you know what, fuck it. You’re welcome.

23. Mark Knopfler - Tracker

Holy shit, I was just kidding earlier about a Dire Straits album. I swear, I had no idea. I feel like I accidentally wished this whole thing into being. Sorry everybody.

22. Florence + the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

If you can make it all the way through this without pausing to listen to “Surfin’ Bird” in order to remind yourself that you actually like music, you’re a stronger person than I am.

21. Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Fuck off, country. Seriously, fuck off whole country.

20. Don Henley - Cass County

Especially fuck off guy from the Eagles doing a wizened old music man faux country album with fucking Mick Jagger on it. Can’t you afford to live in a retirement home staffed by nurses who will pretend to give a shit about your music, or is that basically what Rolling Stone Magazine already is, and I took a wrong turn and ended up here?

19. Kurt Vile - b'lieve i'm goin down...

I don’t spend a lot of time listening to Kurt Vile, but I deeply appreciate his annual appearance on these lists. I feel like a boxer getting his ass kicked who’s like “sweet, there’s the bell, now I get to go sit on my little stool for a minute.”

18. Boz Scaggs - A Fool to Care

Production fact: very low in the mix of the percussion tracks on each of these songs is the sound of a middle-aged dad’s shitty Viagra balls slapping against the alcohol-soaked ass cheeks of a woman he just met at the hotel bar.

17. Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart

Keith Richards fact: Keith Richards’s rapper name is Shitty Viagra Balls. Also his face is that too.

16. Jack U - SKrillex and Diplo Present Jack U

I’m prepared to refer to this, in writing, as the “Hands down, the Best Album of the Year” if it means not having to listen to it.

15. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

This is that guy from Fleet Foxes doing grown up adult contemporary songwriter stuff. There is no chair on earth comfortable enough for me to sit though it.

14. Wilco - Star Wars

I’m not here to participate in blowing additional smoke up Jeff Tweedy’s already fully sanctified ass, but this is a great model for just exactly how few fucks an artist of this guy’s stature should be giving at all times. Like Keith Richards called his album “Crosseyed Heart,” like he’s trying to prove some bluesman-to-be-reckoned-with point, and this thing is called “Star Wars” and just has some take it or leave it songs buried in fuzz and recorded in what sounds like a single afternoon. How is Jeff Tweedy acting like he’s got less to lose than Keith Richards in 2015?

13. Tame Impala – Currents

I had a job interview the other day, and the subject of music came up, and the person interviewing me was ten years younger than me and had never heard of the Flaming Lips, and my bones turned to dust and my desiccated remains floated away on the breeze. The worst part is how desperately I hope they get back to me. Tame Impala is fine. Everything’s fine. It’s all JUST FINE.

12. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

I’m out of nice things to say about Lana Del Ray or who’s the other one? All the other ones. I was starting to feel bad about it, but this one YouTube video has 34 million hits. So she ain’t hurting.

11. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love

SENT 5:02PM: “Kelly, I'm listening to the new Sleater-Kinney album right now and I kind of wish I currently wasn't, is that okay, am I an okay person? Do I deserve to be loved?”

RECEIVED 5:32PM: “Haha. My beloved wife shares your same view on it, so yes.”


10. Blur - The Magic Whip

Damon Albarn is probably the best looking 47 year old man alive, so it’s okay if you just totally don’t listen to any of his music ever again. Sorry if that’s sexiest, A.K.A. prejudiced against sexy people.

9. The Arcs - Yours, Dreamily

This is a super group with a dude from The Black Keys and a dude from The Shins and Amy Winehouse’s producer and a Dap King or two and one of them was also in TV on the Radio. This is like saying “hooray for the music industry!” This is like if the I Heart Radio App was a band playing a concert sponsored by a vodka. Like if this was the only music that survived the human apocalypse, future alien archaeologists would somehow be like “ehhhhh we get it.”

8. Various Artists - Hamilton: Original Broadway Soundtrack

I do not consider myself worthy of the phenomenon, so all I can do is direct you to the great Tim Sniffen, a man I know who has apparently seen Hamilton.

7. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

 “Isbell's subjects are overworked and underprivileged – a bored police officer who kills time pulling over women” – Rolling Stone describing why this is good.

How can you be overworked, bored, and killing time all at once? That sounds like being underworked. How can you be simultaneously underprivileged and capable of pulling over women at your own random bored whim? This is a pretty good read on what’s going on in America in 2015, Rolling Stone. Really, really good work. Cool job, guys.

6. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

This is much more high ranking than I would have thought possible for something which avoids being so many awful things Rolling Stone always loves, such as lowbrow pretentious, self-serious, overdone, ubiquitous, well-branded, boring, being the product of an old and/or already very famous person, obvious, charmless, and facile. To name a few.

5. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness

This is like some fucking copyright-cleared “20TEENS MUSIC plays” scene soundtrack from a low budget period piece comedy that savagely makes fun of right now. This is what Napoleon Basicbitchamite dances to at the big talent show.

4. D'Angelo - Black Messiah

Everybody who talks about this album mentions the fifteen years that lapsed between D’Angelo releases, and after slogging though this whole list to get here, I totally get it. God damn is this ever RIGHT ON TIME.

3. Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late

If I may go meta for a second, I just briefly had a cut/paste incident in which the words “Drake - If You're Reading This It's Too Late” got replaced by “Napoleon Basicbitchamite,” and I thought that worthy of sharing. Guys, look, I listen to Drake, but not, like, on purpose. I’m getting more than enough Drake from atmospheric Drake exposure. Big fan of all the memes, Drake! Keep memein’.

2. Adele – 25

The person who wrote this typed out each letter. They typed out an A, and then a D, and then an E, and then an L, and then another E. And then, you know, a bunch of other stuff too. That’s pretty amazing. That’s like, that’s overkill, you guys.

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

You know who is definitely not fucking around? Kendrick Lamar. Even Rolling Stone is like “yeah, we can’t give it to Adele, and believe us, we want to, we’re Rolling The Fuck Stone.”

And there we go. We did it. We made it.